Friday, August 26, 2011

Review: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine ~ by Alina Bronsky



Review by Shellie for The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine ~ by Alina Bronsky  (translator Tim Mohr)  

A dark modern fable translated from German. It is a literary novel that is tragic and blackly humorous, told by a narrator who is definitely misguided and “unreliable”.

About:  Set in Russia in the 1970s, The Hottest Dishes is told in the first person by the self-centered Rosa. It starts with Rosa’s daughter Sulfia becoming pregnant in her early teens and not willing to disclose who the father is. Understandably Rosa is not delighted with the situation, but claims her “troublesome” granddaughter Animat as her own and attempts to mold her into an image of what she believes a child and a Tartar should be (Tartars are descendants of Genghis Khan or “mountain people”).

As the reader is lead though the changes, deaths, and difficulties during the deterioration and dissolution of the Soviet Union (most historical details are easy to miss due to the extensive family drama), the tale culminates in a family visa finagled through some twisted means by Rosa from a German native who is researching Tartar Cuisine.

My Thoughts:   Rosa is an intriguing character who is definitively an unreliable narrator, possessing a vision of herself that is unreasonably high. She navigates her life with a positive flair that ignores the perspectives and feelings of her family, creating situations which are painful and heartbreakingly sad. All the while she downplays the difficult reality in her world and country, which is more than a bit askew. Although her ability to get by in a harsh world is at times mildly admirable, in the end I was left asking myself the questions: How far would you go to get by or survive? What would you be willing to sacrifice for a chance at a better life for yourself and your family?

This is a short novel but one which I would consider a “chewy” read; it took me some time to finish due to its denseness. The text was not difficult, and the translation is excellent, but due to Rosa’s complexities and the unusual family dynamic she inadvertently creates it took a bit longer than normal. I had to stop to digest what it was about Rosa that I empathized with and what it was that I had a hard time understanding, and why her horrific opinions were in fact humorous. In the end I decided that at her best she is an extremely misguided “mother hen”. But as the adage goes “when does the means justify the end result”?

In conclusion I think that the story can be seen as dark fable for those who “do way too much”, providing lessons on what not to do even though one may think they know what is the best for everyone. Rated at 3.5 stars I enjoyed this translated story, and recommend it for readers who like literary fiction, unusual and complex characters, black humor, or those who would like a lot to think about. This is another book which would be perfect for a discussion group, as there could be so much to talk about.

Paperback: 304 pages; Europa Editions (April 26, 2011)  US|UK|Canada

Its good to be home.

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